School chief finalist makes his pitch to Howard public

N.Y. administrator vows classroom focus

January 19, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Four days after emerging as one of two finalists to run Howard County schools, New York state native John R. O'Rourke met last night with about 50 parents, school board candidates and community leaders.

O'Rourke -- 55, who is superintendent of the Pittsford Central School District near Rochester, N.Y. -- told them that he would focus on classroom instruction, partnerships with the community and improving student achievement if he is named schools superintendent.

The Pittsford district, in one of Rochester's wealthiest suburbs, has an enrollment of 5,800 and a reputation for high academic achievement. O'Rourke's salary is $135,000.

O'Rourke spoke for a little more than an hour in the first of two public sessions designed to allow residents to meet the finalists.

People wrote their questions on notecards that were read by a moderator. They questioned O'Rourke about his ability to work in a school system more than five times the size of Pittsford's; whether he had ideas about closing the achievement gap among all groups of students; and his views on special education, open-space buildings, vouchers and charter schools.

O'Rourke said he was confident many of the skills he used to run the Pittsford district could transfer to Howard County.

He said he needed to understand the academic-achievement gap before he tried to solve the problem. He would find school systems that were successful in closing the gap and "then steal from them," he said with a laugh.

O'Rourke said he was in favor of state and standardized tests, but not as the sole way to assess a student, a school or a system.

He said open-space buildings, which have been the norm in Howard County schools for years, work for some students but not all.

His goal, O'Rourke said, will be to make Howard schools the "schools of choice" to eliminate the need for school vouchers or charter schools. "So that everyone would know that this where I want my child to be," he said.

Many who attended the forum said they liked O'Rourke.

"I was impressed with the amount of community and parent involvement he expressed," said Virginia Charles, one of 18 school board candidates. "We know that one of the greatest ways to improve schools is to encourage parental involvement."

"I like the way he speaks comfortably and extemporaneously," said Rick Wilson, PTA president at Wilde Lake Middle School, one of the five schools O'Rourke visited before meeting the public.

He also visited Wilde Lake High School, Running Brook and Ilchester elementaries and Ellicott Mills Middle School at Bonnie Branch.

"We wanted him to experience the breadth of experience in our Howard County schools," board Chairwoman Sandra H. French said. "Old and new, Columbia and county, elementary, middle and high."

O'Rourke is scheduled to meet with school system staffers members at a public reception from 3: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Board of Education, 10910 Route 108 in Ellicott City.

The other finalist is David E. Sawyer, 54, superintendent of the Brevard County, Fla., school district who will visit here tomorrow and Friday.

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